I am seated in an opera box at the Sydney opera house, waiting for the start of a company performance of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”. A standing-room only ticket of AU$20 got me this lordly place which is normally reserved for more moneyed subscribers. Nobody seems to want this seat because it has only a partial view of the stage. I myself wouldn’t plunk down $100 for this seat. Tonight the SRO price is just right.
A kindly-faced gray-haired Australian woman is my only other companion in the box. I learn that she used to work in the costume department of the Sydney Opera. I notice a tall, buxom woman with a prominent jaw who has turned round from her seat in the front row orchestra and is waving her hand in my direction. I tentatively wave back at her until I realize that she is actually waving at the woman beside me.
“She's waving at you. Who is she?” I ask.
“Oh,” she replies, “that’s Joan Sutherland”.
We enthusiastically wave back at her.
The conductor of the opera that night is Dame Joan's husband, Richard Bonynge. The program notes that this particular opera was last performed by her wife many years ago. Now, retired, she's just an honored spectator. The opera is a bel canto setting of Schiller's play. I find the opera sonorous and compelling but find the acoustics of the hall less impressive.
Although the sound within the Opera House is mediocre at best, it is the architectural outer shell that astonishes and delights me. In terms of recognizability and popularity, the Sydney Opera House is right up there with the Statue of Liberty and the Parthenon. It’s hard to believe that its construction was hotly vilified by press and populace and its Danish architect so thoroughly disgusted by the politics of the whole thing that up till the day he died in 2008, he never went back to Australia to see the finished structure.
Like the Eiffel Tower, I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid, even the Statue of Liberty, the Opera house had a controversial beginning but over time has been accepted and loved as THE symbol of Sydney, if not of Australia itself. To paraphrase the saying, you can’t keep a thing of beauty down. There's something about the billowing roofs of the opera house, especially at sunset, when its creamy facing tiles acquire an almost golden luster, that makes me want to sing: “The sails are alive….”